In the kilns where new owners are yet to benefit from the expert work of Animal Nepal, working conditions are miserable for donkeys and mules.
“The condition of donkeys and mules here is very bad,” warns Animal Nepal vet Dr Atish Kumar Yadev as our off-road vehicle navigates the dusty track to a brick kiln in the Lalitpur region. “The equine owners are all new to kiln work this season and so they haven’t yet learned from our welfare guidance.”
We’re driving from the capital city of Kathmandu, and our charity partner’s working equine programme team has arrived ahead of us on motorbikes, answering an emergency call from their veterinary outpost in the hills near the kilns.
Two, pitiful, white donkeys, a mother and son, are being given treatment by Dr Sajana Thapa and her vet technicians as the animals’ owner and handler look on. Exhausted and malnourished, the donkeys have seeping wounds on their backs and at the top of their hind legs, having been forced to carry their heavy loads while their harnesses rubbed painfully on their raw wounds. They are also riddled with mange, an itchy, hair-loss-inducing skin infection caused by parasitic mites.
Dr Sajana administers disinfectant, ointment, painkillers, antibiotics and multi-vitamin boosters, and instructs the owner to rest the animals and purchase more treatment supplies, which are essential for their recovery. However, experience has taught her to know that not all kiln workers can be trusted to heed medical advice when they haven’t yet developed a relationship with Animal Nepal.
Before attending to the donkeys, Dr Sajana has just treated the maggot-infested wound of a severely underweight mule whose novice owner has just six animals left out of an original total of 27 — a staggering 21 of them dying at the kiln. It transpires he has bought the cheapest animals in bulk from Indian equine fairs prior to the season, which runs for seven long months from December to June before the monsoon rains stop work. The poor creatures were already in a sorry condition before being worked.
As the season comes to an end, the owner has little hope of selling his depleted workforce to new owners: the people in the Gorkha region of the Himalaya, who buy the fitter kiln mules to work as mountain pack animals, will have no use for such weary beasts of burden.
Instead, the owner is squeezing every last income-generating brick load out of them without investing sufficiently in their feed or giving them enough rest time to regain some strength. At the same time, he is letting them fester in squalid night-shelters which lead to the spread of diseases.
This working-to-death scenario is a far cry from the kiln we visited the day before, where we met the winner of Animal Nepal’s Best Equine Owner Award, a scheme introduced to incentivise good animal welfare practices. At today’s kiln, the over-stretched veterinary team doesn’t wait for calls from concerned owners. Instead, they use the rapid-response motorbikes we have funded to hold regular on-site clinics and spot-checks so they can intervene, whether invited to do so or not.
Sure enough, a couple of hours later, we find the mother and son donkeys have been forced back to work rather than rested as per doctor’s orders. They are struggling up the steep dust track, carrying their loads of unbaked, ‘green’ bricks to the kiln where they will be fired under the smoking chimney. They suffer in silence, the donkey’s characteristic trait of stoicism clearly being cynically exploited.
Dr Sajana steps in immediately, requesting the animals are sent home for three days of recovery. Meanwhile, Dr Atish pays a visit to the office of the kiln owner to discuss how he can influence the equine owners to follow welfare procedures that should now be standard practice.
At dusk after the long day, we visit the donkeys at the settlement of makeshift animal and human shelters, made of discarded bricks supporting corrugated iron roofs. The handlers — who have been recruited as cheap labour from some of the poorest communities in Nepal and India — prepare the feed mix of grain, molasses and green grass, while the veterinary team continues to treat animals in need.
But the harrowing day is by no means over. Dr Atish has found a mule lying in a filthy shelter, flies swarming around his motionless body. He is so weak that he is unable to stand, let alone work. After administering treatment, our partner vet pledges to come back the next day to check up on the animal, but fears the worst.
“The hardest aspect of this job is having to put animals to sleep,” he says. “But sometimes euthanasia is the only humane solution. I’m afraid I give this mule less than a week and it could be kinder to put him out his misery sooner.”
He then receives an emergency call on his mobile from the equine owner at a nearby kiln. A mule is lame and is suffering respiratory problems, with his nostrils seeping blood. He has been isolated from the other animals in case he is carrying a contagious disease. Thankfully, Animal Nepal’s training about isolating sick animals has been followed.
We speed along the bumpy tracks through the valley in the 4x4 vehicle, but, on arrival at the scene, it is clear that the mule is beyond treatment. He will not survive to see another day. Taking medical equipment from the back of the truck, Dr Atish reluctantly prepares an injection to humanely euthanise the mule.
Kiln workers look on in subdued silence as Animal Nepal’s vet technicians hold the mule firm, gently stroking him as a final act of kindness. Seconds after the syringe goes into his neck, his legs buckle under him and he breathes his last sigh. He is finally at rest.
A JCB excavator is ordered and soon arrives down the track, its hydraulic arm and claw making fast work of digging a deep grave. As the lifeless mule is lowered into the ground and the digger reapplies the earth over him, the atmosphere is reverential — like a ritualistic burial ceremony, a moving farewell to an animal that will suffer no more.
The unmarked resting place of a mule with no name has been returned once more to a working track at a brick kiln in Nepal.
Days spent at these kilns demonstrate how our partner charity is influencing sustainable change in welfare standards through building relationships with equine owners. But as inexperienced owners arrive at the kilns each season, there is much immediate work to do as vets busily answer emergency calls to give relief suffering animals. Meanwhile, our advocacy work is investigating further collaborations with governments and other non-governmental organisations to address the socio-economic causes of the situation.